Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1998. HBO Documentary, Whyaduck Productions. Screenplay by Robert B. Weide. Cinematography by Biff Bracht. Produced by Robert B. Weide. Film Editing by Geof Bartz, Claire Scanlon, Robert B. Weide. Academy Awards 1998.
Robert Weide directs a loving tribute to the work of one of the founding fathers of stand-up comedy. Lenny Bruce had a charismatic manner about him that clicked with audiences practically from the start, his earlier, tamer routines finding him fame on television before he began to use the microphone to air his raw views on subjects that made the establishment nervous. When his live acts began involving foul language and his insouciant take on sensitive social issues, Bruce rubbed enough of the right people the wrong way to make himself a target of not just censorship but also the law. The fact that he had an unfortunate problem with drug addiction was no help to his final years spent constantly dogged with legal troubles, culminating in a criminal trial that contributed to his premature death. Bruce was a martyr to the cause of free speech, a pioneer in a field that has broken wide open since he came along: no other comic has since gone to prison for the same things he was charged with, and we probably would not have George Carlin and Joan Rivers without him. Weide does a great job of illuminating this tragedy without turning Bruce into a pathetic figure, instead celebrating the joyful mischief on display in the rich amounts of footage and recordings. Interviews with family and friends, including ex-wife Honey and his mother Sally Marr, who is getting her hair done throughout her entire sequence, help enrich the information we are given, but it’s amazing how much of the subject’s actual work still translates. Stand-up comedy relies very much on contemporary affairs, yet Bruce still draws you into the eye of his stormy opinions as much now as he did then. Weide should be commended for resurrecting the spirit of this important figure for those who were not as well served by Bob Fosse’s excellent biopic.